John Oliver Hates Food Waste (and Chard)

Sunday night, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled food waste. For fans of the comedian and the show, that is a wonderful thing. For first-timers, know that there is plenty of explicit language.

Last Week Tonight sure does a nice job of tricking us into learning. Their treatment of food waste did not disappoint. What began with an indictment of America’s predilection for all-you-can-eat everything transitioned into a full examination of the absurdity of wasting 40 percent of our food supply in the face of 50 million food-insecure Americans. 

I was heartened that the story included the environmental impact of food waste, including methane (that’s my voice in the clip). Same goes for their mention of the water squandered to create food not used, especially in light of  the ongoing drought.

Meanwhile, I’m glad that Oliver illustrated the hollowness of date labels (as things that look official but can be ignored, like a kid playing dress up in a cop outfit). And I loved that he debunked the myth that food donors can be sued when people get sick, exposing it as a false fear (like the swimming cramp after eating).

The piece gave some well-needed publicity to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Oliver voicing the main provision of that law was both a national service and a personal thrill. Meanwhile, Oliver exposed how the Senate hindered future food donations by turning the America Gives More Act (HR 644) into a zombie bill, nixing permanent tax incentives to small businesses and farms who donate food.

A few phrases really went down smoothly: “Farm to Not-a-Table,” “Wining and Dining raccoons,” and “produce body shaming,” (which reminds me of my attempt to promote wider acceptability with #realfoodhascurves). I also liked how Oliver dismissed the lawsuit myth by mocking the idea of ‘all those high-powered lawyers representing the hungry.’

The only thing missing was a call to action, as the show’s main stories often include. But as one of the show’s researchers told me, simply shedding light on food waste and its triple costs (ethical, economic, and environmental) will likely prompt many viewers to examine their own habits. Or at least never eat at Carl’s Jr./Hardees again. Maybe even both!

One statistical note: The finding that the US fills 730 stadiums with food waste annually stems from my finding on the daily filling of the Rose Bowl. It’s basically that we fill the Rose Bowl two times every day. When I was doing my original research in 2009, I found that we almost filled that stadium twice every day. It was about 197 percent per day, so I said we filled the Rose Bowl once a day to give a conservative estimate. In the intervening years, the growing population and steady waste rates combine to make that two times per day estimate solid.

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